Great Expectations
(Mostly from the Director and Designer!)
By Rob Brown
Northern Stage Productions

Designer Rob Brown, shares his experiences using SFX to bring Charles Dickens' classic tale, Great Expectations to life with this Northern Stage Production.


The video brief for Great Expectations was to have an almost continuous series of images projecting onto first, a kabuki gauze for the first few minutes of the show, then a rear gauze for the rest of the show with a wipe gauze flown or drawn in for a couple of moments during the show. The projection was split between two projectors sitting at the same point FOH at proscenium height; one focused on the back screen and one on the kabuki and wipe gauzes which were downstage and only a metre apart

We used video blackout devices [VBODs] to prevent unwanted light spill. These small boxes had a motorised paddle which would drop in front of the lens when there was no video signal present; the switching being done by a video matrix controlled from SFX using RS232 protocol. This had the added advantage of giving us the ability to send any video source to either projector which became important when we realised we also had to use a video fader to ensure that images were brought in and out smoothly along with the action.

The sound brief was also complex in that dialogue was almost continually underscored with various musical tracks and sound effects with a lot of a lot of dynamic content and volume shifts between scenes and during action sequences. Although most of the actors were on radio mic, the director was keen for them to sound as if they weren't and where possible, not be mic'ed at all except for small parts where reverb and echo effects would enhance various sentences which were used in `flash back' sequences.

I had recently lost my sound op, so the show was to be operated by someone with no experience of theatre and only a small amount of live sound engineering work although he was very PC literate and a quick learner.

Without SFX Show Control this would have been at least a two person operation and not very easy at that. With SFX, the show was a series of 52 button presses and the odd riding of a fader.

The video sources [Adtec Edje hard-drive based mpeg2 video players] were controlled via RS232 as was the Kramer video Matrix and the Panasonic MX-30 video Fader. As this amounted to three different device types I had to install a USB to RS232 adapter which was tricky to get right but once it was configured correctly it performed flawlessly.

A lot of the video had been cut to the music but there were a lot of audio fades to be considered throughout the play as levels were continually brought up and down under dialogue and to heighten drama. We were using a Yamaha 03D but scene memories would be at a premium with all the radio mics involved so it was decided to strip the audio from the video and fire it from within SFX. There was absolutely no problem with frame accurate syncing and the added bonus was that the audio quality was much higher [1411kbs instead of the 384kbs of mpeg2 video]. SFX controlled the 03D scene memories via midi so that mics could be switched on and off as required and also effects added and removed, often using two memories tied together with a wait command so that relevant effects would gradually fade up or fade out as required. All the audio from SFX was fed into the 03D via ADAT optical cable from the Gina sound card so that there were enough analogue inputs for the radio microphones.

For the two complicated dream and nightmare sequences, the musical underscore was played through left and right with a separate sound effects feed to the subs then multiple layered and effected recordings of the actors' voices were played through up-stage speakers to which the actors mimed. This was very effective and even I could have been easily convinced that they were all talking themselves, especially as the music faded leaving one actor actually talking on an effected mic which gradually faded out to normal un-amplified speech, all automated via SFX.

Because of the complexity of the show I used a number of different cue lists for the various devices and fired them all from a master cue list using a box with 4 switches [GO, BACK, FORWARD and PANIC] adapted from the guts of a midi joystick. There were lists for music and sound effects, Kramer Video Matrix, Panasonic Video Fader, Adtec Edje Video Players, Yamaha 03D and a small 'Tech Control' list with keyboard commands for pausing video and audio during technical rehearsals.


This show goes on tour around theatres in the UK from the New Year and without SFX show control would not have been financially viable. With SFX, I have the confidence to send someone out on their first tour with probably one of the most complicated shows, from a sound and video aspect that the company has ever done.